How We Created ‘O. at the Edge of the Gorge’ (Guillemot Press)

These two pieces on the writing and illustrating of my new chapbook, O. at the Edge of the Gorge, first appeared on the Guillemot Press website. Thanks to the Press and Phyllida Bluemel for permission to re-post them here.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART ONE by Martyn Crucefix

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The scraps and scribbles that eventually became O. at the Edge of the Gorge are contained in a notebook dating from March 2014. The first words that made it into the finished sequence record my sighting of “6 white doves / on the boundary wall / looking away”. I’m pretty sure I spotted the birds on the drive to one of the airports north of London as, on the same page, sits a note recording a tannoy announcement calling a customer back to one of the shops in the Duty Free zone: “please return /  to Glorious Britain / for a forgotten item”. These are the sorts of strange happenstances that get thrown down in a writer’s notebook; happily, it was the dove image that stayed with me.

The landscape of the poem is the destination of my flight that day, the Marche in central, eastern Italy. I was staying in a house close to the edge of a deep gorge, looking out to distant hillsides, several hilltop villages, their church spires, clumps of dark trees. The roots of the poems – any poem, of course – spread much deeper than is immediately visible. So earlier in the same notebook, I find I had noted a quotation from Schopenhauer (itself quoted by Dannie Abse in the May 2014 issue of the magazine Acumen): “Envy builds the wall between Thee and Me thicker and stronger; sympathy makes it slight and transparent – nay, sometimes it pulls down the wall altogether and then the distinction between self and not-self vanishes”.

A little earlier, there was another note. This was from a piece by Ed Hirsch in the magazine The Dark Horse. Hirsch quoted Simone Weil’s observation that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. He went on to urge our attention ought be paid to the earth, not looking for something atemporal and divine. We need to cherish the fleeting and the transient, even in its disappearance. This is the particular project of poetry, he argued, and these are recognisably Rilkean ideas that were always likely to attract my interest. I have spent many years translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. The Orpheus link took a while to re-surface in my mind in relation to the new poems.

One other notebook entry stands out. I seem to have been reading Bruce Bawer’s book, Prophets and Professors (Storyline Press, 1995), and in a chapter on Wallace Stevens he quotes Mallarme: “To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object”. It’s not necessary for a writer to fully grasp such scattered sources; they tend to be ripped out of context and appropriated for use. In retrospect, I seemed to be thinking, over a period of weeks, about the relation between self and other, the paying of attention to the transient world and the difficulty of maintaining such attention through the medium of language. All of this re-appears in the poems that make up O. at the Edge of the Gorge.

Also by this time – probably July 2014 – there were two strong poetic voices chanting in my head. One was from poems I was trying to translate by Peter Huchel, poems written in the highly censored context of the GDR in the mid 20th century. I find I’d scribbled down “his vision is up-rooted, deracinated in the extreme – a world where meaning has withdrawn (the jugglers have long gone) what’s left is iron, winter, suspicion – spies, the Stasi, meaninglessness – but the natural world persists”. The other voice was from the Ancient Chinese texts of the Daodejing which I had also been versioning for quite a few months previously and were eventually to be published in 2016 by Enitharmon Press.

In complete contrast to Huchel, the Daodejing’s vision is one of ultimate unity and wholeness achieved through such an intense attentiveness as to extinguish the self and all barriers. These two extremes seem to form a key part of the sequence of poems that emerged in the next few weeks, my narrative voice moving from a Huchel-like sense of division and isolation to a more Dao-like sense of potential oneness.

Besides all this, I was playing in the notebook with the idea of ‘off’’. The point was, rather than focusing where the ‘frame’ directs us, we gain more from attending to what lies beyond it; the peripheral, I suppose, in a kind of revolt. I was muttering to myself “locus not focus”. I was thinking of the lovely word ‘pleroma’, a word associated with the Gnostics and referring to the aggregation of all Divine powers – though, as with Ed Hirsch, I was not so much interested in the Divine. Pleroma is the totality of all things; something like the Daoist’s intuition of the One. I think such ideas gave rise – quite unconsciously – to the several swarms, and flocks, the “snufflings the squeals and scratchings” that recur in the poems. These represent the fecund variousness of the (natural) world to which we might be paying more attention.

The hilly landscape and the plunging gorge itself also seem to suggest (at first) a divided vision. The carpenter bees act as intermediaries – at first alien, later to be emulated. As the first rapid drafts of individual poems came, there was a plain lyric voice – an ‘I’ – in a sort of reportage, revelling in the landscape, its creatures, colours and sounds till eventually I had 12 sonnet-like pieces. One of the poems seemed already to allude to the Orpheus myth, the moment when he looks back to Eurydice and she is returned forever to the underworld. His mistake, in this version, was that he was seeking an over-determined, “comprehending grip on earth” as opposed to a more passive openness to the phenomena of the world (which Eurydice seemed now to represent).

At some stage, the narrating ‘I’ was switched to a ‘he’ and the ‘he’ began to feel more and more like a version of Orpheus himself (hence O. at the Edge of the Gorge). The change from first to third person also gave me more distance from the materials. It was on a later visit to read my own work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in the Spring of the following year that I heard Angela France reading a crown of sonnets. I blogged about it at the time and coming home it struck me that my sequence ought to take the same highly interconnected form. The 10th of my sonnets – precisely that moment where the Orpheus/Eurydice separation occurred – was expanded into two poems, absorbing some details about a parked car on a hill and others, also focused on transience, from Dante’s Paradiso Book 16. The final sonnet to appear picked up on some notes I’d made long before about seeing a hunting hawk rise up from the roadside clutching a mouse or rat in its talons. By this stage, the gorge, in its representation of the Other, had also come to be associated with life’s most apparent Other, death. The whim, or wish, or risky flight of my narrator to include or encompass the gorge itself became the poems’ hoped for goal.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART TWO by designer and illustrator Phyllida Bluemel

I have a print-out of O at the Edge of the Gorge covered in pencil scribbles and tiny indecipherable thumbnails of visual ideas. Putting images to poetry can be daunting. I find that, armed with a pencil, a close reading of the text and lots of doodling is a good place to start. I thought a lot about the point of illustrating poetry – what the images can bring. I want the illustrations to be in conversation with the poem, rather than just replicating images already present in the words. Starting with an intuitive visual response is a nice way to get the conversation started.image1

For me the poems read like an unforced train of thought – a notebook in the pocket of a traveller, a sun-drenched jotting of linked observations and associations and memories – the kind of meandering thoughts that are particular to a slow and hot afternoon. They are very evocative of place.

I was taken with the formal playfulness of the poems – the crown of sonnets – where emphasis repeats and changes and each poem flows effortlessly into the next. An enacting of Martyn Crucefix’s line “he snaps them sketches then revises again”. It seemed appropriate to echo that in the imagery. The folded and interrupted illustrations bind each poem to the next. I wanted to give myself some of the constraints that the poet had set himself – and nearly every image contains an element of the one before, re-appropriated and carried forward – a visual game of Chinese whispers.

22071074_225079284691665_7698907406985592832_nThe poems move from one image to the next but there are the same preoccupations – the specks and the flocks and movements alongside monuments and geology – contrasting contexts of time, and the sense (especially given the form) of something trying to be ordered or sorted out, but not quite complying – “dicing segments of counted time…” The diagrammatic, map-like – but not-quite scrutable imagery is a response to this – an attempt to make sense of forms and information, or grasp a particular memory and note it down. Not quite successfully. We are left with a string of related thoughts and a measuring or structuring impulse.

The imagery itself takes its leave from the words – an outlined lavender stem becomes a cross-section, a contoured landscape, which in turn ends up as the outline of a branch, twisting into the form of the river at the bottom of the gorge. I had a lot of fun playing with scale and the way in which lines taken from nature mimic each other. This felt right because of the shifts in perspective in the poetry – from the raptor’s eye view, to the ‘snufflings’ and ‘scratchings’ of detail. The buzzard’s diving and ‘zooming-in’ of the landscape. 22158675_355445834881295_4436376972506955776_n(1)

The use of newsprint for the folded pages is as much an act of ‘illustration’ for me as the lines. Maps and diagrams and lines interrupted by folds and the edge of the pages make it feel as if they are part of something else – ephemera or a dog-eared map folded, or a napkin sketch ­ – tucked between the pages of a notebook. I also think it’s OK to want to make a beautiful object for the sake of a beautiful object – the tactility of different paper stocks, the small and pocketable size of the book – all I hope lend themselves to a thoughtful reading of the poem.

The Bow-Wow Shop’s Aspects of Orpheus

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Last week I was pleased to be involved in the first of the on-line journal Bow-Wow Shop’s evening events in Clapham. Its focus was the figure of Orpheus: What is it about the story of Orpheus and his pursuit of his dead wife, Eurydice, into the underworld that has so inspired generations of artists, writers and composers?

Editor of The Bow-Wow Shop, poet and Independent arts and culture journalist, Michael Glover organises and he programmed a terrific mix of material. Ann Wroe’s 2011 book, Orpheus: the song of life (Cape), explores the roots of the Orphic story and traces its many manifestations through Classical to modern times. I was lucky enough to read with her at an event at Lauderdale House a couple of years ago. In Clapham she was in conversation with Marius Kociejowski. I was there on the strength of my 2012 translations of Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus (Enitharmon Press). Providing musical illustrations of the power of the Orpheus story were mezzo-soprano Lita Manners and guitarist Paul Thomas. There was also an exhibition of prints by Tom de Freston, creator of OE, a graphic novel on the Orpheus material.

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Lita and Paul performed extracts for Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), songs by Vaughn-Williams and from the 1959 film Black Orpheus. Marius interviewed Ann though she needed little prompting to discuss several aspects of what is a wonderfully original book. Rilke’s inspired writing of the Sonnets to Orpheus (1922) form a thread through the book but she steered clear of that and concentrated more on the first evidence of the myth in the 6th BCE: a painting in black figure on a Greek vase, pictured with a huge lyre that almost seems part of him. Already at that early stage he is called ‘famous’. A 13th century BCE Cretan vase perhaps images him, again with the super-sized lyre (denoting divine powers, his music powerful even over inanimate objects birds, trees). Elsewhere he seems imaged as a bird himself – the power of song and music so strong that he must take on the attributes of a bird-god.

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Perhaps even further back, Ann suggested, the figure is based on fertility myths, perhaps of Indian origin. His wife Eurydice likewise is linked to the figure of Persephone, the whole narrative in its original forms reflecting ideas of the seasons, death and re-birth of the earth, the crops. But there remains something irresolvable about the Orpheus myth – this polyvalent quality is one of the reasons for its productive quality in terms of inspiring artists. We kept recurring to the question: why must Orpheus turn as he is leading Eurydice out of the Underworld? The story contains its own tragedy. Ann suggested one interpretation might be to do with the fact the Eurydice represents the mystery of the natural world, or perhaps of knowledge/speech about the natural world, and that must necessarily remain hidden. Such a thing is the remit of the Gods alone. Orpheus must leave the Underworld empty-handed.

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I spoke about Rilke in 1921, settling into the Château de Muzot in the Swiss Valais. How he liked to walk in the garden with its orchards and roses in full bloom, a landscape often evoked in the sonnet sequence which eventually arrived. He later declared that in the month of February 1922, he ‘could do nothing but submit, purely and obediently, to the dictation of [an] inner impulse’. In an extraordinary inspirational period, between the 2nd and 5th of that month, most of the 26 sonnets of Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus were written. He then polished off the ten year old sequence of the Duino Elegies. Between the 15th and the 23rd, Rilke went on to complete the 29 poems of Part Two.

Perrcy Bysshe Shelley wrote a longish fragment on the myth in 1820:

 

His [song]

Is clothed in sweetest sounds and varying words

Of poesy. Unlike all human works,

It never slackens, and through every change

Wisdom and beauty and the power divine

Of mighty poesy together dwell,

Mingling in sweet accord.

 

Here, as often, Orpheus is an image of the (male) artist/poet as well as being an image of our desire to find or create order or harmony in the world about us.

Rilke’s inspired poems brim with optimism and confidence about the role of poetry. In contrast, but more typical of the growing 20th century gloom, perhaps with intimations of a second world war, 15 years later – Auden’s brief 1937 poem ‘Orpheus’ is mired in uncertainty, asking “What does the song hope for?” Is it to be “bewildered and happy” – a sort of ecstatic but unthinking bliss? Or is it to discover “the knowledge of life”? No answer is given. The poem ends: “What will the wish, what will the dance do?” This is the Auden who doubts the power of poetry – it makes nothing happen – in his Elegy to Yeats.

And more like Auden than Rilke, the 20th century tended to take a more sceptical view of the myth – giving a more powerful voice to the traditionally passive Eurydice – more critical of Orpheus as careless, self-centred, weak. For example, in 1917 – 4 years before Rilke arrived in his chateau, H.D.’s Eurydice was condemning Orpheus:

 

for your arrogance

and your ruthlessness

I have lost the earth

and the flowers of the earth

 

Such radical revisions come also from more explicitly feminist poets like the American, Alta:

 

all the male poets write of orpheus

as if they look back & expect

to find me walking patiently

behind them, they claim I fell into hell

damn them, I say.

I stand in my own pain

& sing my own song

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Carol Ann Duffy’s revision (in her 1999 book The World’s Wife) gives Eurydice both poem title and narrative perspective. Her Orpheus is:

 

the kind of a man

who follows her round

writing poems, hovers about

while she reads them,

calls her his Muse,

and once sulked for a night and a day

because she remarked on his weakness for abstract nouns.

 

She saves herself from having to accompany Orpheus back to the upper world by offering to listen to his poem again. Orpheus, seduced and flattered, turns. “I waved once and was gone” she comments.

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In this context Rilke’s take on the myth is (not surprisingly) very traditional and brimming with confidence in the role of the poet and patriarchal sidelining of Eurydice. So Rilke’s interest lies with the world and the underworld, life and death. He is more like Shelley who set his fragmentary poem after the loss of E and it’s coming through that experience that seems to add power to his song. Rilke is interested in the idea of transition. Orpheus tries to recover Eurydice; he moves from life, into death and then back again. This fluidity, the courage and a readiness to renew ourselves, to be risked in the absorption with something other, to be translated from one realm to another, to come and go, to be and not to be is what draws Rilke to the myth.

This is also Don Paterson’s thinking behind his versions of the Sonnets in Orpheus (Faber, 2006). He argues Man is unique in having foreknowledge of his own death, meaning we act as if we are already dead, or historical. This means that we construct life as an authentic and intelligible narrative, a life with meaning, but it is death that drives the plot of our life. This is one of Paterson’s key ideas and he refers to it as our ‘ghost-hood’. So we are like Orpheus: we too have descended to the land of the shades and then returned to the present moment – our condition is therefore existentially transgressive, riven, divided.

It’s the singing of the Orphic artist that addresses and bridges such divisions. This explains Rilke’s interest in the Orpheus myth: its narrative is a metaphor for the longed-for transit or communion between the realms of life and death. He possesses the desired ability to inspire the renovation of human perception that can initiate a more comprehensive, joyful and celebratory experience of life. One of the things most people know of Rilke is his exhortation to praise. Praise is a form of secular prayer for Rilke and it demands a renovation of conventional language through Orpheus’ song – as also noted by Shelley in Prometheus Unbound:

 

Language is a perpetual Orphic song,

Which rules with Daedal harmony a throng

Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were

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Orpheus’ singing as a way to think about the language of poetry can clearly be seen in Rilke’s celebratory sonnets about the garden at Muzot. Here’s my translation of sonnet I  13:

 

Pear and plump apple and gooseberry,

banana . . . all of these have something to say

of life and death to the tongue . . . I guess . . .

Read it in the expression on a child’s face

 

as she tastes them. It comes from far off.

Slowly, does speechlessness fill your mouth?

In place of words, a flood of discovery

from the flesh of fruit, astonished, free.

 

Try to express what it is we call ‘apple’.

This sweet one with its gathering intensity

rising so quietly – even as you taste it –

 

becomes transparent, wakeful, ready,

ambiguous, sunny, earthy, native.

O experience, touch, pleasure, prodigal!

 

Rilke’s vigorous and self-conscious mutations of the sonnet form create a variety of rhyme schemes, line lengths, iambic and dactylic pulses. David Constantine has described this as suitably fitting forms for the figure of Orpheus because he is himself a figure of transition, fluency and mystery.

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Forthcoming Bow-Wow Shop events in Clapham will focus on the work of Edward Lear and Gabriel Garcia Lorca.

Jan Wagner: the Poet as Tea-Bag and as Chameleon

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Iain Galbraith’s really skillful translations of the German poet Jan Wagner have just won the Popescu European Poetry Prize. Wagner’s poems brew a formal brilliance (Karen Leeder remarks in her Introduction to Arc’s Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, that “virtuoso” is the compliment most often applied to him) with an intense concentration on really existing things. In the German tradition, of course, such a meticulous and sensual evocation of things (‘die Dinge’) harks back to Rilke’s advice in the ninth of his Duino Elegies (1922):

 

Perhaps we are here to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –

at most: column, tower . . .

 

Rilke’s cycle of poems arrives at this conclusion (“Praise this world to the angel, not some / inexpressible other”) not at all in the spirit of defeat but in a celebratory mood because it is only through honest interaction with the world that we define and refine our sense of ourselves. Equally and dialectically, through, our emotional and artistic responses to the world of things we are able to translate the inanimate and unconscious world into something more significant, lasting, spiritualized.

 

And these things, which live by passing away,

acknowledge your praise of them, as they vanish,

they look to us to deliver them, we, the most

fleeting of all. They long for us to change them,

utterly, in our invisible hearts – oh, endlessly,

to be within us – whoever, at last, we may be.

 

It is just this ebb and flow between self and other, each re-defining the other, each growing in response to the other, that Wagner seems intent on recording. But it’s not always an easy process as the poem ‘Mushrooms’ suggests. The narrator must listen for the snap of a twisted stem as if cracking a safe, “hoping for the right combination”. But when the right balance (I’m afraid it has to be this dull-seeming word) is achieved between active exploration and passive sensitivity then two worlds are miraculously joined.

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But we need not get too po-faced about the process. Wagner suggests a tea-bag might help us envisage it. In two haikus, he wryly evokes both facets of such communion in a religious visionary and a rope-dangling, Indiana Jones-type adventurer:

 

1

draped only in a

sackcloth mantle. the little

hermit in his cave

 

2

a single thread leads

to the upper world. we shall

give him five minutes

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Jan Wagner

Wagner reflects the often rebarbative nature of the process partly through typographical choices, abandoning capital letters throughout (a far more disturbing move in German, of course, which capitalizes all nouns, all things). It’s also reflected in the choice of fruit in ‘Quince Jelly’. Knobbly and ugly, even ripe quinces are inedible when raw, astringent and tough. Wagner acknowledges the “tough and foreign” quality of the fruit and its taste which makes “our palates baulk”. Yet the human work invested in the transformative domestic process yields great rewards:

 

quinces, jellied, lined up in bellied jars on

shelves and set aside for the darkness, stored for

harsher days, a cellar of days, in which they

shone, are still shining.

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Such meticulous observation and sensual details held in the form of verse ensure Wagner’s things are always more than themselves and here the quince jelly is a poem, much like Wordsworth’s daffodils, an accumulation of “wealth” to flash upon “that inward eye” in days and years to come.

Wagner also chooses a ‘Chameleon’ to represent the poet. Describing the creature’s curved tail as a “pastoral staff” raises the spiritual stakes with a wonderfully light touch. The animal’s perceptive acuity is likewise explored with its tongue like a “telescope”, snapping up the “constellation” of a dragonfly. Its eye is a “fortress” yet contains a flickering pupil; an indefinable restlessness is suggested by its shed skin like “an outpost or long-discarded theory”. Most tellingly, the chameleon’s independently moving eyes enable Wagner to suggest the balance of both centrifugal and centripetal thrusts of the true perception: the animal gazes “simultaneously at the sky / and the ground, keeping his distance / from both”.

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The title poem of Arc’s selection (taken from 5 collections between 2001-2014) is another portrait of the poet. ‘Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees’ has the narrator wearing an ever-accumulating beard of swarming bees. The risks and dangers are part of the point but the poem focuses on the accumulating “weight and spread”, suggesting the swarm extends and adds to the narrator in some intrinsic way. Indeed, he becomes “the stone-still centre of song”. In the next quatrain, the passive singer is converted into an “ancient knight” arming for battle, yet he does not either advance or retreat:

 

just stands there gleaming, with barely a hint

of wind behind the lustre, lingering breath,

and only vanishing becomes distinct.

 

This teasing last line (“und wirklich sichtbar erst mit dem verschwinden”) is best understood again through Rilke. Auden affectionately ribbed Rilke as a poet whom “die Dinge bless, / The Santa Claus of loneliness” but it is in the challenge to self confronted through honest encounters with the world of things that we re-make and re-define our sense of self. Here is the idea expressed in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus, 2, 13:

 

To the used up – to all Nature’s musty and mute,

its brimming storehouse, its inexpressible sum –

joyously add yourself and the account’s done.

 (All translations from Rilke here taken from my translations of  ‘Duino Elegies’ and ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’)

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Hear Galbraith read ‘December 1914’ below:

 

 

 

On Translating Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

Idris Parry writes in the current PN Review (March/April 2015) comparing Rilke’s Duino Elegies with the Sonnets to Orpheus. The poet always spoke of the sonnets as subsidiary to the elegies, but Parry argues that while the elegies “talk about” the poet’s task, the sonnets perform it. I’d agree and, in translating both in the last 20 years or so, I have come to prefer the vivid enactments of the sonnets. Parry explores Rilke’s response to Rodin in Paris in 1902. What struck Rilke was Rodin’s “dark patience which makes him [as creative artist] almost anonymous”. What the young poet learned was to pursue an “unhurried and uncommitted exposure to experience” (Parry’s words). This is opposed to impatience which is (contra-Keats) an irritable reaching after clarity: “making up your mind before the event instead of letting the event shape your mind” (Parry again).

Rilke’s “praise” is just this acceptance and faithful utterance and is predicated on the truth of an underlying unity of existence. The poet is obliged to speak of this unity but can only use the language of division, a language deluded by the conviction of finality. Parry epigrammatically concludes: “We punctuate to retain our sanity, but we should not come to believe the punctuation”. The PN Review piece ends by looking at sonnet II, 18 and asks, if Rilke’s own German is a poor translation (using shabby tools) of an ultimate reality, how can translators hope to do it justice in bringing it over into English?

Reading Parry this week, reminded me of my own thoughts, not long after having translated Duino Elegies (https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/translations/duino-elegies/). They were originally published in Magma Magazine; I hope they are worth making public again:

My own grappling with the issue of what can be lost and gained in translation began over 10 years ago when London’s Blue Nose Poetry group staged an evening to celebrate Rilke’s work. This was partly in response to a Poetry Review survey of the original 1994 New Generation Poets, several of whom declared his work to have been influential. Though a name I was familiar with, I have to confess I hadn’t gotten far through my Penguin Selected. Perhaps on account of my ignorance, I was to contribute only by reading aloud from the Elegies. The Ninth was chosen but as I practised, I found myself stumbling, losing the thread and, frankly, I hardly knew what it was I was reading:

Here is the time for the Tellable, here is its home.

Speak and proclaim. More than ever

Things we can live with are falling away, for that

Which is oustingly taking their place is an imageless act.

Act under crusts, that will readily split as soon

As the doing within outgrows them and takes a new outline.

This is Leishman’s translation of the Ninth Elegy and I supposed the obscurity was part of the point – that it must signal hitherto unplumbed depths of profundity. My view on this remains equivocal, but I believe a proportion of the difficulty is obfuscation and the impression of slippery ‘mysticism’ it generates has misleadingly become part of Rilke’s appeal for many readers. For me, the bottom line was I could not read this aloud with the kind of conviction that I demanded. I tried a couple of other easily available translations – Stephen Cohn’s and David Young’s – but still was not happy with the sound these poems made in my mouth.

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Castle Duino

Within a month I had produced a ‘version’ of my own. By version, I meant a close-ish translation, but I had taken considerable liberties with the more difficult passages and inserted what I thought Rilke might have meant or what I wanted him to mean. At the time this seemed to me a risky strategy compelled by necessity, though there is nowadays a good deal more debate about the role and value of versioning. My own position is that I prefer a genuine attempt to translate the original into a contemporary target language. I see the point of versions – but it is hardly ever what I am seeking as a reader. Nobody imagines translation is easy; but only a fool anticipates a perfect rendering. We expect translators to work in good faith and that their work will read sufficiently well in the target language not to distract us with the stale sweat of their strenuous wrestling with the original. Nor should they cover the difficulties of translation by delivering obscurities that defensively resist comprehension.

It was coming across my first attempt a couple of years later that set me systematically picking my way through the million pitfalls of the Elegies. Take for instance Rilke’s opening lines, the great cry at the start of the sequence. Rilke writes “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?” Not too much of a problem you might think, but William Gass, in his book, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Basic Books, 1999), considers no fewer than 15 versions of these 11 words. Most – though by no means all – accept Rilke’s opening word – “Who” – and most, though not all, take over Rilke’s relative clause “if I cried”. But is he merely crying or crying out? And beyond this point of relative agreement lie terrible dragons of disagreement, especially over the word “Ordnungen”. How are the angels deployed? Are they in “angelic orders”, “amid the host of the angels”, “among the hierarchy of angels”, “the order of the angels”, “among the angels’ hierarchies”, “among the ranked Angels”, “through the Angel Orders” or even (Gass gives his own version) “among the Dominions of Angels”? In such company, my own version, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?” runs the risk of a watery plainness but it has the advantages of clarity, echoes the rhythm, syntax and line break of the original closely, and (remembering my first concern was for oral performance) the line has a satisfying aural quality. I hear in the first phrases high, thin vowels that contrast the second half’s weightier, assonantal ‘a’ sounds: the cry of alienated humanity contrasts the solid, seemingly impregnable powers that lie beyond our reach.

But the best-equipped translator faces especially difficult problems in Rilke. In the Fifth Elegy, for example, the poem describes some acrobats. This is a combined portrait of a troupe Rilke knew while living in Paris and a painting by Picasso (La Famille des Saltimbanques, 1905) with which Rilke lived in the summer of 1915 in the house of the dedicatee of this Elegy, Frau Hertha Koenig. This is, formally, one of the freer of the Elegies, its lines extending and contracting to reflect the energy of the tumblers.

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Picasso’s ‘La Famille des Saltimbanques’ (1905)

But in the Picasso painting the figures are arranged in an almost imperceptible D-shape and Rilke writes:  “Und kaum dort, / aufrecht, da und gezeigt: des Dastehns / großer Anfangsbuchstab . . .” In my version: “And barely discernible, / yet up-standing and unmistakeably on display, / the capital D of Destiny . . .” The original word “Dastehns” (something like “standing there”) reflects the visual pun and it would be a great loss not to bring this into the English. Stephen Mitchell uses the word “Duration”; Young’s looser version loses the pun with “existence . . . presence”. On this occasion, I found myself following Stephen Cohn and opting for “Destiny” (more usually the translation of “Schicksal”) which I felt conveyed Rilke’s sense of how these individuals are driven to perform by forces external to them, rather than by a more truthful inner compulsion.

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Another critical decision arises in the Tenth Elegy with its tribe of people who enjoy a closer, more authentic relationship with death and grief than Rilke perceived in contemporary Western culture. He uses the word “Klage” and an English equivalent has to be found that works as the name of a young woman, her tribe, her ancestors and her country. Like the sound of the original, the word also has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in such powerful emotions. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is certainly heroic. Most previous translators have opted for the word “Lament” but I felt this suggested a rather affected, almost poetic attitude – precisely the kind of posturing that Rilke asks us to avoid in our confrontation with these difficult aspects of life. I chose the word “Keening” to convey the genuine edginess of feeling (aurally again I liked the harsh initial K and the word’s trailing, wailing fall). This word seemed to me to work perfectly as personal and tribal name and geographical location: “gently she guides him through the vast / Keening landscape, shows him temple columns, / ruins of castles from which the Keening princes / once wisely governed”.

One thing I have learned is that translators take sustenance from their chosen originals. This is not just in the obvious way of extending their range, but also that they feed on a familiar. They find in their subject an answering voice, a confirmation of something already present within themselves. I experienced this in a surprising way. Rilke’s influence on Auden was particularly evident in the late 1930s. The sonnet sequence In Time of War refers directly to him and Mendelson’s Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) argues that ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ concludes with “an explicit echo” of Rilke’s Ninth Elegy and its famous injunction to “praise this world to the angel”.

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Auden asks Yeats’ spirit to “Teach the free man how to praise”. Interestingly, Auden has never been a strong influence for me, yet the elegy to Yeats is a poem I have always loved. In fact, five or six years before I got to know Rilke, I remember modelling an elegy of my own on Auden’s – from the choice of title, the formal variety of its sections, to a finale in which I too celebrated one who “loved the world, craved its taste”, elevating him to a teacher of praise: “Listen, let me make this master speak: / Laughter, love, the senses are profound. / Drink deep, remember, Jeremy Round” (‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’). Reading Mendelson’s book has convinced me that I had been responding not merely to Auden but also – unknowingly – to Rilke. It turns out I have been finding a sympathetic familiar in him for longer than I had imagined.